Coyote in Afghanistan

A Coyote armoured vehicle on patrol near Kandahar Airfield.


Read more: Photo Gallery

343. High Command
by Christopher L Elliott
A retired British Major-General takes a look at what went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan between2003 and 2010 by putting the workings of the Ministry of Defence and the top brass of the three armed services under the microscope. Basically Christopher Elliott argues that no matter how talented and well intentioned the military chiefs are, the system is dysfunctional and poor decisions are almost inevitable. The top officers in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and Army often found themselves out of the loop when it came to discussions and decisions about crucial operations. Elliott interviewed a number of the key politicians, civil servants and military commanders involved and this, added to his own experiences at the Ministry of Defence, means that what he has to say and suggestions he makes should be treated seriously. Some very necessary changes had already been made by the time this book was published 2015 but many more issues still remain unresolved. Elliott argues that the British might do well to adopt several practices already employed by the United States forces. As the British are now very junior partners of the US in military matters this makes a lot sense. Elliott also argues for longer spells in the top jobs as the present two-to-three years in the top job leaves little incentive for long term or very original thought. He was appalled to find there was no record of how certain disastrous decisions regarding British involvement in the two conflicts were actually made. And he adds  too many people involved who had power without responsibility or responsibility without any real power. Too many military men were without the formal education required to deal with highly educated careerist civil servants or politicians focused on the short-term goals rather than considering the long-term and bigger picture.  And there is also the question of senior officers who found themselves being bypassed or sidelined due to a complicated chain of command. Sometimes Elliott seems too reluctant to offend his former colleagues by criticising them too directly. It's not enough to say that fifty percent of the Chiefs of the Defence Staff failed to do this or that, he has got to name the guilty men.

342. The War That Never Was
by Duff Hart-Davis
This book about British-led mercenaries operating in Yemen in the mid-1960s was a serious disappointment. It is hyped as the first time the full story of the operation has been told and not only that but it was to be recounted in the style of a top notch thriller. It was neither. The writing style is often turgid. People don't climb steep hills in this book, they perambulate percipitous slopes. The bulk of the book appears to be based on files hoarded for decades by two of the usually London-based leading administrators of the small force of British and French mercenaries sent to support tribesmen loyal to Yemen's Royal Family following a military coup in 1963. The reader is left with little feeling for what life was like for the mercenaries. This is the war in Yemen as seen through the eyes of two members of a Tory Old Boys' network. The British Government, thanks to pressure from the United States, could not be seen to openly oppose the Egyptian-supported Yemeni republican government. Much of the British "unofficial" support comes from the part-timers of 21 Special Air Service. Most of them spend their time in Yemen as glorified radio operators. A couple of them may be fairly described as Walter Mitty types. Tory MPs, cabinet ministers even, are in on operation: as are serving or alarmingly recently discharged, members of the real SAS, 22 SAS. The money comes from Saudi Arabia and the weapons drops are carried out by the Israelis. Both countries want to turn Yemen to into Egyptian President Nasser's very own Vietnam. When a Labour government is elected the conspirators defy British policy, official and unofficial, to continue their operations. I guess Old Etonians do indeed know best when it comes to Britain's true interests. This book is far from a full account but it does provide an interesting perspective. Neither is the mercenary operation as little known or written about as the hype on this book's cover would have the reading public believe. 

341. Victoria's Wars - The Rise of Empire
by Saul David
I got the paperback and I have to warn you not to be misled by the picture of a bayonet wielding kiltie on the cover. The book winds up about 20 years before members of the Highland regiments wore the kind of uniform shown. The book actually runs from the disastrous British intervention in Afghanistan in 1839 through to the burning down of the Emperor of China's Summer Palace outside Peking in 1860. Historian and author Saul David argues that this was the period when the British Empire was actively expanding and later campaigns were primarily concerned with protecting it from the other European powers. The book also takes in the conquests of Scind, the Punjab, fighting in Burma, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and clashes with China between 1856 and 1860. David attempts to sew his story together by looking at the role of Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, and her numerous Prime Ministers, played in events. But I was left feeling that David had some unused research notes left over from previous projects and was looking for a way to turn them into a book. One of the dilemmas faced by anyone who tries to make a living from writing books is that you have to keep pumping them out. This is a book for someone who hasn't read much about the period. Otherwise, there's not much new material or insight. 

Read more: Book Briefing

Pension Misery Highlighted

The Dorchester Review , a leading Canadian magazine when it comes to history, is carrying an article I wrote about British Army pensioners, many who served under the Duke of Wellington's command, who were caught up in a disastrous scheme which involved them giving up their pension entitlement in exchange for land in the British Colonies or United States. I became interested in what happened to the so-called Commuted Pensioners after realizing one of the main suspects as a contributor to Vicissitudes in the Life of a Scottish Soldier had been lured to Canada under the scheme. 

Double Bill

The latest edition of Canada's Dorchester Review features not one but two articles from Paul - Churchill in the Trenches and Drug Store Commandos. The first link takes you to an extended version of the article which appeared in the DR about Winston Churchill's time in command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on Western Front while the second is an article about the Lovat Scouts training in the Canadian Rockies as mountain warfare specialists.

Canadian Connection with With Wellington in the Peninsula?

The British Canadian newspaper ran an article in its May edition about a possible connection between one of the soldiers in my new book With Wellington in the Peninsula and a disastrous government scheme to settle ex-soldiers in Canada while depriving them of their pensions.

Irish Terrorism in Canada

In between working on a major project, I wrote another article for the Dorchester Review here in Canada. The attempt by terrorists to destroy a Canadian canal lock in 1900 is often dismissed as being the work of bunglers. But a closer look reveals a tale of murder and links successful bombing of the House of Commons more than a decade earlier. Few seem to know that one of the gang was found dead with a bullet through his heart. Attempts by US politicians, including President William Taft, to persuade the Canadian authorities to release the terrorists is better known.  Dynamite Dillon

Also see - Dorchester Review

Canadian Interest

The Dorchester Review, based in Ottawa, Canada, recently published an article I wrote about one of the more eccentric of the British regiments - Victoria's Royal Canadians. Most Canadian historians seem unaware of that a regiment was raised in Canada to fight in the Indian Mutiny.


The Winter Issue of the Scottish American Military Society's magazine The Patriot  contains a two page interview with yours truly. I thought the least I could do in return was give them a plug. At a later date, I'll see about either linking to the article or posting a version of the interview on the SMD site.

Double Spread

It’s been a busy few weeks. Last Saturday (Nove. 3) the Scottish Daily Mail published a two page spread under my byline about the 2/10th Royal Scots campaign against the Bolsheviks in northern Russia 1918-1919 titled "The Tsar's Fighting Invalids". I’ve found a link to a site which carries the article but before I post it I want to make sure I’m not sending you somewhere you might regret going. The Daily Mail article let the cat out of the bag when it comes to the fact that I’m working on a new book – working title, Jock and Rorie – Tales of Scottish Soldiers. Read about the Forgotten War

Read more: Paul's News

Scottish Military Disasters has been launched as an e-book. And it’s now improved.
Preparing the book in e-book format offered the chance to correct some minor errors.
“I wouldn’t say it’s worth someone who has the print version going out and buying the e-book,” said author Paul Cowan.
“But in preparing the e-book we’ve corrected a couple of little irritating misprints and one mistake that probably only annoys me and a couple of my relatives.”
The book is one of the first from the Neil Wilson Publishing catalogue to be released as an e-book.
“Neil’s stable of authors includes such giants as Nigel Tranter, so this is a real honour for me,” said Cowan.
“This will make the book far more accessible to readers in Scotland and around the World – and also in certain countries far more affordable.
“I’ve found where it is reasonably priced overseas, it’s been selling like hotcakes.”
Glasgow-based Neil Wilson said the move into e-books was as a result of public demand.
Wilson teamed up with the respected e-book team at the Faber Factory for the conversion to the new format which will make Scottish Military Disasters available on a variety of devices, including most e-readers and mobile phones.
“We will also go online with Apple soon,” he added.
For details of how to buy the e-book version –

Neil Wilson Publishing


The debate over whether Scotland produces some of the finest fighting men in the World could go on for ever. What is certain is that pride in the military is woven into the Scottish psyche and that that pride has been ruthlessly exploited by the British Establishment.
In the popular imagination the Scottish soldier is a kilted infantryman. The infantry are the men who go through the meat grinder in almost every war and Scotland has provided the British Empire with more than its fair share of infantry. In the fighting after D-Day in 1944 a British study suggested that although the infantry made up only 25% of the troops involved; they suffered 71% of the casualties.
(While I can’t put my hand on my heart and say my research for Scottish Military Disasters points to the Scots having the worse military record in Europe, for most of recorded history it hasn’t been very spectacular. People remember Bannockburn because it is one of the few battles against the English that the Scots won. Even when the English were heavily outnumbered, at battles such as Flodden in 1513 and Dunbar in 1650, they still managed to win. Many English, and Irish and Welsh soldiers for that matter, regard their Scots counterparts as a bunch of blowhards who write cheques with their mouths that their battlefield performance fails to honour. The counter-argument goes that the Scots go that extra mile to back up their boasting.)
But where does this Scottish martial pride which encouraged so many young Scots into the infantry during two world wars come from?

Read more: The Great Kiltie Con

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